Globe and Mail Travel

'Slogging through midlife', by Catherine Gildiner - September 2004


It's that time of year when back-to-school rumblings inspire thoughts of self-improvement. Catherine Gildiner forsakes the annual all-inclusive holiday and signs up to hike glaciers, ford rivers and paddle across Queen Charlotte Sound on a 'multisport extravaganza' in New Zealand. But she encounters an unexpected challenge: a bee-fearing, TV-producing kayak partner named Sid.

CHRISTCHURCH, NEW ZEALAND -- Every September, I have rumblings of back-to-school phenomenon, the longing for a clean slate. It usually takes the form of panic combined with some sort of unattainable self-improvement. Last year, it was that life was passing us by. (No one ever said neurotic behaviour was original.) Grabbing my husband's wrists, so he couldn't press keys on the computer, I said: "We have to lean out and seize the doughnut on the merry-go-round before it's too late." My husband said he needed more information.

I announced that I was finished taking sedentary all-inclusive holidays, where the "all-inclusive" includes the five pounds you gain gorging on buffets. We are in our late-50s and we may only have 10 years left to actively discover the world, I told him. By 65, we might be beached on a chair by the Caribbean or, worse still, on a senior citizens cruise docking up to buy yet another straw hat. We had to get out there while we still could. After 35 years of marriage, my husband had heard a number of my active-vacation meltdowns and had learned to simply agree with me, let things go, and then along comes the February freeze and I cave. We end up taking a last-minute flight to an all-inclusive beach resort in the Caribbean.

This time, he surprised me. He walked in the door the next day waving tickets and said: "Well, I have booked some holidays. We are hiking, biking and kayaking in New Zealand for November, rain-forest canopy jumping in Costa Rica for December and white-water rafting in Bolivia for March." This from a man who had phones put on both sides of the bed because it was "too hard to lean over." The tickets were already bought for New Zealand and Costa Rica. I cancelled the ones on hold for Bolivia. My husband had clearly read B. F. Skinner's principles of behaviour modification. Intermittent reinforcement is the most powerful type. Ignore the rat's behaviour most of the time, but occasionally reward it and the rat will keep pressing the food bar forever.

The New Zealand holiday was ominously entitled "multisport extravaganza." A friend blithely reassured me: "Listen, for the money you're paying in American dollars, they will have 'handlers' to carry the bags, and a bus to poke along behind you and when you're tired, you just cry uncle and climb aboard." I was, however, haunted by the expedition company's "fitness alerts," daily e-mail regimens that would defeat the marines. My antennae went up at the number of times they used the word "challenge" and the line: "We have chosen to stay in more rustic accommodations, so you can access the most remote areas." After that point, the word "accommodation" never reappeared -- only "hut" was used.

After 26 hours of air travel, during which I sat next to a woman suffering from trichotillomania (the uncontrollable pulling out of one's own hair), my husband and I arrived in Christchurch, where we met 12 members of the trip. They all looked like they had just finished filming the TV show Survivor. We were the eldest by two decades except for one woman from Los Angeles, who was 65, had a Jocelyn Wildenstein face-lift, and shrieked, "Hey girlfriend!" for 14 days whenever we made eye contact. The group was typified by Fredrick, 32, who appeared in shorts when it was cold enough to see your breath. In the airport, he was bedecked in climbing ropes and had carabineers dangling from every limb that chimed when he took his Jack-in-the-Beanstalk strides.

One guest, a man named Sid, had disembarked at Auckland, which is on the North Island. We were on the South Island waiting for him. He left the message that no one told him that New Zealand was made up of two islands. Hours later, a bewildered, bald, chunky 39-year-old TV producer from Burbank, Calif., arrived. He had told his secretary to book him a bird-watching holiday and she had chosen this. He later said he should have known she had "latent anger."

Our itinerary, as we made our way around the South Island beginning and ending in Christchurch, was indeed to be an extravaganza of adventure: "snorkelling with seals" in Kaikora (I had previously been unaware that seals could snorkel), kayaking on the Queen Charlotte Sound and Okarito Lagoon, hiking along the sparsely populated west coast, biking through Te Anau toward Milford Sound, which Rudyard Kipling rightly had called the eighth wonder of the world. The journey included a two-day hike near Lake Pukaki and Mount Cook, the highest mountain in the Southern Alps. This trip started with a 16-kilometre mountain climb, with a stop at a hut where we'd sleep in our clothes. Clearly there was no one to carry the bags.

The guides were two ravishingly beautiful women in their 20s, one of whom had long blond dreadlocks that she wore in a schoolmarm bun. The other never once got ruffled, even when we faced a flash flood, an avalanche, the coldest spring in 25 years, and Sid's persistent moaning. They made the meals, drove the bus and carried their own packs, which also held all the food. If you couldn't keep up, you were, they chirped, "left for the possums, mate." Apparently, there are 72 million possums in New Zealand. They have no natural predators.

In our first "briefing," one guide said, "Tomorrow we will be crossing a stream. Unfortunately, the water is running high with all the rain so we are facing white water probably up past our waists." "I guess we will need our sandals," I volunteered. "No," she answered evenly. "There will be a powerful current and the rocks will be slippery, so we will need to wear our hiking boots. We also have to join arms so no one gets swept away." "Won't our boots be wet for the rest of the trip?" my husband asked. "Welcome to tramping in New Zealand," said the unflappable guide. (Thank God I had at least cancelled Bolivia.)

We learned not to ask questions. Just put one foot in front of the other and concentrate on the task at hand. In some ways, it was totally therapeutic since you couldn't think of the future because if you didn't concentrate on the task at hand you'd have no future. (First lesson learned.) When we did come to the "stream," we discovered a torrent that made the river in Deliverance look like a Disney film and Sid refused to cross. The guides just continued on, not even addressing his litany of shrieks: "Are you kidding? Do I look like Evel Knievel? I have a life, a job and parents. I'm on the wrong trip!"

We all joined arms and fought our way across, looking like a herd of cattle crossing the Rio Grande in those old cowboy movies. When it finally dawned on Sid that he had nowhere to go and no food, he yelled for us to come back. I said no way was I risking my life twice for him. He then offered the entire group "free tickets to Leno" if we came back. One guide looked at the other and said, "Who is Leno?" The other answered, "I think he is the old guy on TV late night who wears a suit and has a long chin."

Our guide said we all had to cross the glacial water again on this freezing day, link arms and pick him up and put him in the centre of our lineup so he didn't panic and get carried away by the current. I said I wasn't going until he apologized, but our guide said it was no time for vendettas as it took up energy. She was right. I never had another fight for the entire trip, not even with my husband. I realize now that part of the reason I fight with people is because I have extra energy all dressed up with nowhere to go. (Second revelation.)

Fortunately, after that hike, I had taken the kayaking option for four days as had three others. We were going to paddle Queen Charlotte Sound, an area known for its secluded beaches and unusual birdlife. My husband had taken the three-day hiking option in Nelson Lakes National Park, which straddles the northern tip of the Southern Alps and is covered with beech forests and big lakes. I had never bought into the "family-that-plays-together-stays-together." Our kayak instructor, Marie, was a woman who had to cut her tights off at the mid-calf because she had so many muscles (her circulation was cut off if she wore them down to her ankles). She announced that there had been a lot of rain and it was "pissing possums" as we spoke, so the current was strong and the winds were high.

Because of the stormy conditions, we were only allowed out in double kayaks with at least one strong kayaker on each boat. I was labelled a strong kayaker, having kayaked once before, so you can imagine the weak ones. Marie, in an act of extreme cruelty, which she later apologized for, placed Sid in my boat. We donned our ensembles: long underwear, winter tuques, neoprene booties and pogies (mitts that the pole fits through) and rubber short skirts that stuck straight out from our bodies that were held up by giant suspenders. When I saw our reflection in the water, Sid and I clearly had a Babar and Queen Celeste silhouette. I was placed in front to paddle hardest and he was in the back to steer the rudder with his foot. The first thing he did was run full speed into our instructor. I kept screaming, "Turn!" and he later said, "Sorry, I saw a bee." When I asked why he was worried about a bee when it was freezing, raining and we have three-foot swells, he said, "I could be allergic to bees." Even though he had been stung several times and had had no reaction, he still carried a reaction kit complete with EpiPen. "God forbid there could be a first time," he said.

We had to cross four sounds to get to where we were spending the night. It was getting dark and Sid was barely moving. He kept stopping to take pictures of, as he said, "a birdless shore to put in his secretary's document for dismissal." Marie assured him that the waters were too high with rain running from the Southern Alps and the birds had taken refuge higher up. (Birds, unlike tourists, prepare for flash flooding.) Why is it that the least athletic people have the most expensive gear? Sid had a $12,000 binocular/camera that could freeze each frame while I ferociously paddled along. He actually had the nerve to say, "Can you stop jolting me?". As he looked on each side of the cliffs, he said, "Thank God I had laser surgery. If there's a penguin out there, I'll find it. I always get my story." Marie tried to tell Sid that there were only a few blue penguins and although this would be the cold, wet weather in which to see them, they were a rare sighting.

Finally, hours later, nearly comatose after dragging Sid across three sounds using my whole body to paddle, while he did the dog paddle between photo opportunities, Marie paddled back to us and said, "Sid you have got to co-operate. You are a heavy man and Cathy has been carrying you. It is getting dark and we may not be able to find our hut." Sid said, "Does no one get this? I'm on vacation." He then pointed out that his hands were too cold to function any more. She suggested if he moved them they would warm up. When we finally made it to our "lodge," we had trouble getting our gear off as our fine motor system had packed it in. As we grabbed at our booties and tried again and again to pull them off, Sid said, "Oh my God I think this is how MS starts." One thing about travelling with another partner, it makes you appreciate your spouse. (Third revelation.)

"Oh my God -- a blue Penguin," Sid screamed as he looked through the hundreds of digital shots he had taken that day. We all looked and only saw a tiny blue line that could have been a streak of lichen on a rock. He blew up the picture to 200 times its size and the line really did look like a wing. Sid was causing such a ruckus that other backpackers came to our table. One was a German professor in biology who was studying the blue penguin and he started screaming to his team of biologists, "A guy from California [said with Arnold Schwarzenegger intonation] has found a blue penguin." We had to put all the pictures together and Marie, who knows every rock and cranny of the sounds, was able to assess where the picture came from. Before dawn (apparently penguins are early risers), we paddled back. The biologist told us that if we did spot one, they are very shy and we could not risk getting too close or it would escape by water.

Again, Sid spotted the bird in the same spot. There, standing before me on shore was a small, midnight-blue penguin. We got close enough to almost touch him. We agreed later that, given the shyness of his species, he must have been an exhibitionist. (There are some in every species, right?) Everyone snapped away and the biologist and Sid said it was the greatest day of their lives. I had to admit it was pretty Dian Fosseyish. When we rejoined up with the rest of the group, who had not seen any unusual birds, in the tiny coastal village of Punakaiki, we puffed our feathers and strutted our shots of our penguin varieties, our seals and our one sperm whale tail.

To cap the two-week adventure, we all had to choose a sport for "daredevil day" -- like I hadn't had enough with the flash flood and the near-hypothermia. The choices were bungee jumping, parachute jumping off cliffs and ski gliding. Sid, saying he was insured and feeling suicidal, chose parachute jumping off the side of a cliff, as long as someone pushed him. He was relieved when he was rejected for weight. (That was after he ate all the chocolate that was supposed to be energy bars to help 14 members climb Mount Cook.) As the Kiwi who weighed him in said to my 6-foot-1 solid-chocolate kayaking partner, "Sir, gravity takes its toll."

My "extreme sport" was going with Sid to buy his mother a sweater in Queenstown. We started out with small and got to extra large. By the end, I wanted to jump off a cliff and didn't need any encouragement. It is interesting to note, however, that no matter how annoying someone is, if you are coupled in dangerous conditions for long enough, mysteriously you bond. You will do whatever you need to do physically and psychologically to survive. (Revelation number four.)

And in one of those strange twists of fate, Sid saved our lives. About halfway through the trip after a wet, futile attempt at hiking on the Franz Joseph Glacier, we sat on a patio in the beautiful resort town of Queenstown, enjoying our first dry moment and a cappuccino. We soon learned from the newspaper that an avalanche had killed two hikers on the glacier the same afternoon we had been there. Our group's hike had been delayed at the foot of the mountain as Sid held us up yet again, refusing to sit in the wet runoff to put on his crampons. While Sid procrastinated, a ranger came along with a mallet and hammered into the ice a large orange sign that declared the mountain closed due to avalanche warnings. "Thank God, we can get back on the bus," Sid said.

When I returned to Toronto, and walked into my local breakfast diner, my exercise buddies all looked at me as though I was one of those kamikaze pilots who had just wandered out of the forest 20 years after the war. The waitress said, "Who did your nails, Howard Hughes?" Someone asked if I'd used meat tenderizer on my hands and face. I heard myself saying that I'd had the best trip of my life. I also told them that I'd made some good contacts. I even told them about the Franz Joseph Glacier screenplay I'm writing with a guy named Sid from NBC. His agent is calling mine.

Catherine Gildiner is the author of the memoir Too Close to the Falls and her forthcoming novel Seduction is coming out in January of 2005.

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